The Magic Flute

Bohumil Hrabal, translated by Peter Kussi

The following is drawn from a recent essay by Bohumil Hrabal. It was written shortly after the demonstrations in Prague this January held to commemorate the death of Jan Palach, who had immolated himself in January 1968 to protest the invasion of Soviet troops and the overthrow of the Dubcek regime. Dozens of people who took part in the recent demonstrations were arrested by the police and many are still in jail.

…What has actually taken place in this city during the last two days? The armed power of the police and the militia crudely intervened in the affairs of young people who had created a myth of their saint [Jan Palach], and I believe it was those same armed police who claimed for themselves the right to overstep the bounds of “reasonable” force in dealing with people who had neither firearms, nor stones, nor sticks, and who were armed only with words and whistles, who were pushing baby carriages…. What had really changed? Sooner or later tears clear the eyes, an eye lotion takes care of tear gas, clothes dry or one buys new ones, people arrested will eventually be released, life will return to its old ways…. Do you really believe that, Mr. Hrabal? No sir! Those young people who took part, either actually or in spirit, have already performed an act of commitment, of solidarity, of saying yes to a certain Good, of making a pledge that will be redeemable in the future….

I walked down deserted Parizska Avenue. A police car quietly pulled up at the curb, a man got out and began quietly placing parking tickets on the windshields of illegally parked cars, then quietly the headlights turned toward Maison Oppelt, from the fifth floor of which Franz Kafka once wanted to jump, and then I stood all alone in the square. The place was deserted. I sat down on a bench and began to reflect…. In front of me loomed the monument to Master Jan Hus. When he was being burned at the stake an old woman brought some dry sticks so that the Master could burn more easily. The monument stood in the darkness in the middle of the square whereas the Kinsky Palace and its walls and the whole eastern side of the square was aglow, illuminated by sharp sodium lights in such a way as to make the black silhouette of the monument stand out against the pink and tan walls of the palaces and houses, and as I sat by myself a youngster climbed up on the seat and began jumping from one bench to another. Suddenly the soft voice of a flute sounded from the heart of Old Town Square as if floating from a far-off meadow or a lonely lake, the voice of the flute was moving in itself and also because just a few hours earlier the last cars had left this square with their tear gas and their water cannons and their German shepherds, those lovely …

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